'The House Swap' review: Menace comes home

'The House Swap' review: Menace comes home

There isn’t a lot of action, the kind you would expect from a thriller. Instead, there is that slow burn of menace just lurking around the corner, maybe on the next page.

If you wanted a new experience, or wanted to get away from your life for a while, would you swap your house with a stranger for a week? If your answer is yes, read on. Rebecca Fleet’s thriller is about a house swap between Caroline, a woman in her 30s in London, and another house swapper that she meets online.

The House Swap is a domestic noir thriller that uses psychology as its central trope. The protagonist, Caro, and her husband Francis, are going through issues in their marriage, issues that they are working hard on. To rekindle their relationship, as also to get away from the humdrum of their daily life, they decide to leave behind their young child in Caroline’s mother’s care and opt for a house swap with another person in another neighbourhood in London. Leaving behind their city flat for a week and going to a townhouse seems to be a cure-all for their relationship woes. But soon after they arrive at the townhouse, Caroline realises that this may have been a terrible decision. Secrets from her past begin to surface, things she would rather keep hidden from her husband and the world, and as the novel unravels, she realises that someone is using her past to get even with her.

Caro begins to find little details left behind by the house owner unnerving, as they, in one way or another, remind her of things she would rather forget. Her past is something that she hasn’t really gotten over. This little getaway from their mundane life begins as an attempt to bridge the gap that’s developed between her and Francis, who has become dependent on drugs for his mood swings. But with each passing day, there’s another disturbing reminder of her past, throwing a wrench in her plans to reconcile with her husband.

Whose house are they staying in? Someone Caro knows, or someone who knows intimate details about her past? Is Caro a reliable narrator, or is she an unreliable one? The identity of the house swapper remains anonymous, until almost the very end. This interesting thriller is told in two different timelines: Caro’s past, and her present. Recounted through various points of view, including Francis’s and their next-door neighbour for about a week, while the couple attempts to enjoy their life in the townhouse. The townhouse itself is strangely stark in its emptiness, for nothing about it seems to suggest it’s been lived in. Little to no furniture, empty cabinets, just one or two sordid, sinister throwbacks to Caro’s past. This metaphor is, in and of itself, wanting. If Caro’s past is so full of things that can shame her and hurt her in the present, why does a stark, sinister townhouse fill her with so much dread?

The pace is incredibly, perhaps even painfully, slow. While this may have been a deliberate choice by the author to keep the mystery going, it runs counter to the genre of the novel — a psychological domestic thriller; in this case, more domestic than a thriller. Some parts are a bit too far-fetched, and lurid details about Caro’s past seem out of place, and you are left wondering if Fleet perhaps relied a little too much on sexualising the thriller to keep the plot going.

There isn’t a lot of action, the kind you would expect from a thriller. Instead, there is that slow burn of menace just lurking around the corner, maybe on the next page. The scenes unravel at a leisurely pace, flitting between the past and the present, and you are given several clues along the way to suggest where the menace could be. But while the constancy of the suggestion of menace lingers, the menace itself feels almost absent. The reader is likely to hit a point somewhere in the middle of the book where he or she will just want the reveal, so they can finish reading.

Despite the tightly scripted narrative, and the slow unravelling of Caroline’s past, the plot points don’t seem to cohere into a plausible plot. There is the inevitable twist in the tale towards the end. The reveal and the culmination of the plot just don’t feel like they fit into the overall narrative, and Caro’s character doesn’t seem to go through the arc of change that Fleet wants her to. All in all, it started off slow, picked up pace around three-fourths into the book, and ended with an unrelated whimper that somehow did not stitch the novel together for me. At best, a Sunday read when you have nothing else near, and nothing interesting to watch on Netflix.

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